Lord Cullen: Human factors ‘a matter of life and death’

IOGP’s Annual General Meeting on 31 May welcomed the Right Honourable Lord Cullen of Whitekirk, probably best known in the upstream oil and gas industry for his landmark report on the Piper Alpha incident. As Management Committee Chair Monika Hausenblas put it, this document ‘has become a safety blueprint for offshore installations and their regulation. His 106 recommendations were all accepted by the industry and remain standard practice 30 years on.’

Lord Cullen addressed the AGM in the self-described capacity of an ‘observer/investigator’, to help determine why things go wrong in oil and gas operations. While history does not repeat itself in detail, underlying reasons do – which is why he stressed it is worth looking at significant case studies and understanding the role of human factors in each of them.

He went on to cite examples from the Three Mile Island reactor incident in 1979, Piper Alpha in 1988, Montara in 2009, Texas City in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

In each of these, he noted, human factors either caused the incident or made it worse. These human factors included systemic shortcomings, confusing procedures (particularly those involving permits to work), control room deficiencies, insufficient training, ineffective coordination and communication, lack of a reporting and learning culture, confusing low personal injury rates as indicators of process safety performance, unjustified assumptions about success, lack of awareness of risk factors and normalizing signs of danger.

Lord Cullen stressed that managing human factors is crucial to effective safety management overall. Workforce commitment to safety depends on sound leadership, involvement and communication. The working environment should promote safety and guard against human failure and its consequences.

‘It is as important as a matter of life and death’, he concluded. During the course of a lively question and answer session, Lord Cullen emphasized the need for industries to learn from one another and urged companies to be better about absorbing the lessons from their own failures and near-misses. He went on to applaud the work of organizations such as IOGP in helping to encourage this degree of introspection and sharing conclusions to be drawn.

Further work is needed on leadership and human factors and the practical applications of corporate memory, he said, and IOGP is ideally placed to do that work.

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